eath and I are old companions. • Starship Captain, Star Trek, “Balance of Terror”
As I approach the twentieth anniversary of my death, I’ve got to wonder yet again what the hell I’m doing here. In this I am not alone. Millions (billions?) of people question the reason for their existence. Maybe you do. Most never invent a satisfying answer. Most of those keep living anyway.
The story of my death is rife with ugly coincidences and not a little humor, and much too long to tell here. Trust me, you’d be bored. (On its own, death is boring.) Suffice to say it was a case of me dying, and paramedics “bringing me back” within what we can only estimate to be two to three minutes. There was no one around with a stopwatch.
One joke my friends often tell is that the jury is out on whether the minutes caused me brain damage, as I tend to venture acts, visit places, and do things which make them question my sanity. Usually, my oldest friend comes to my rescue. “No,” she says, “no, he was always like this. Crazy.”
For the record, I remember distinctly the twenty or so minutes it took me to die. (I did not instigate it, either.) I knew I was dying and told myself so. But no, I saw no bright lights, golden tables with grapes glistening with dew, four horses, or a ladder. Nor did I see white hippy Jesus. Maybe he was busy that day, or on another channel.
I will tell you this. Dying the way I did hurt like hell. I don’t wish to repeat it.
A friend, Sherri, has also died, and sometimes over the years we have talked a little about our experience, as only people who’ve died can. “It plays with your head, doesn’t it?” she would say.
Yeah, it does.
A popular moniker for my event, one that I think ridiculous, is a Near Death Experience, or NDE. A massive website devoted to NDEs, nderf.org, offers thousands of such stories. I don’t like “NDE” because it’s the opposite of what actually happens.
Think of it this way. When two airplanes almost crash in the sky, the moment is called a “near miss.” A near miss means they almost missed, which is a hit. Duh. The label is opposite of what it is supposed to mean.
Likewise, dying is dying. If the paramedics had not run to me fast enough up the hill, I would have remained the way they found me. I was not experiencing “near death.” I was dead.
I cannot remember a time, even young, when death scared me. I remember the moment I rejected Christian nonsense about death. I was ten years old and attending instruction classes for my impending Confirmation. It was not long after Vatican II changed Catholicism. Masses would be said in local languages, you could eat meat on Friday, and if you wanted, you could believe that the Old Testament was not true but a story to guide us all. The New Testament, of course, remained sacrosanct.
I asked the priest, if it were true the Old Testament was bunk (I’m paraphrasing, though not by much), and yet the fabricators of the stories had struggled mightily to prove Jesus’ lineage from David to Christ, where in the narrative did the nonsense stop and the truth begin? What page was that on?
The priest’s response was to walk down the aisle between the students’ desks and slap my face. At that moment, I knew I had him, had all of Christianity. If the only response to my question was violence, what the priest fronted had to be bullshit.
About the same time, I came across Mark Twain’s rumination that he expected his existence after his death to bother him as much as his existence before his birth, that is, not at all. I think that’s exactly right, though to shine a light on a point I’ve already made, I emphasize that I don’t fear death. I do fear pain.
So death and I are old companions. While climbing, I have twice fallen off mountains and broken a whole bunch of stuff, yet somehow didn’t die (a real NDE). I’ve been bitten by a venomous snake (Yep, NDE, got a lot of them).
Just last summer, in a valley of the Himalayas, I was repeatedly stung by what Westerners call Asian Giant Wasps, and Asians call, well, wasps. (Sorry, I laugh at that every time.) I am not allergic to anything. While the stings were painful and a nuisance, everyone with me thought the attack something of note but no concern.
Unfortunately, in my fall (the stings came from two of us slipping down a slope and crashing into a nest) I got another sting which soon showed itself. A hole appeared. My flesh was necrotizing, being eaten away. By then the venom had reached my lymph system. Diagnosis: I was stung by an Indian Red Scorpion, which, on its angrier days, kills up to two of every five people it stings.
Let me hone a sharp point to this: it fucking hurt. My arm swelled. Fever ensued. Delirium. Death was possible and by some, predicted. Pumped with drugs (two antibiotics including ciprofloxin, two anti-inflamatories including pepzen, and panacod, codeine, for pain) and yep, here I am.
I cannot describe to you my disappointment about that.
Why disappointment? Stick around, and I’ll tell you.